Michael Sam was cut by the St. Louis Rams over the weekend. Over the following 24 hours, no other team had decided to claim the first openly gay player drafted to the NFL. Then came the news that the Rams didn't choose him for its practice squad. And though he could be picked for a practice squad for another team this week, NFL watchers believe his options are dim.
There have already been lots of arguments on social media, and it will continue this week, over whether or not this represented homophobia in the NFL. Frankly, I'm astounded that anyone can even debate this. One person on my Facebook page said that if Michael Sam were good enough he'd be playing. I don't know how this person could possibly justify such a statement since the NFL's record -- of giving slaps on the wrist for ugly homophobic incidents and hiring known haters -- suggests otherwise, and no openly gay player had been drafted before.
We witnessed players tweeting hateful comments after Sam came out, and saw stories in the sports media quoting unnamed officials saying open gays would mess with the locker room "chemistry" and that the NFL just wasn't ready. Even if we accepted that Sam's performance wasn't up to par and that that was the sole reason for his fate, there is nothing beyond the hollow words of NFL officials to suggest that if he were "good enough" he'd be playing -- and much to suggest otherwise.
And, of course, there are many who are saying Sam was more than good enough. The Rams gave Sam a fair shake, drafting him late when many sports commentators thought he'd be drafted earlier, based on his college performance. Already it seemed like general managers were fearing him. Sam performed well for the Rams but in the end it appears he wasn't what they needed. The coach still praised him. His cut there seemed to be a football decision. But what of any other teams not picking him up in the next 24 hours, or the Rams declining him for its practice squad, and the possibility that he won't make any practice squad?
Let's defer to the experts for some facts and observations.
Heres' Adam Scheftler of ESPN:
And here's Mike Freeman of Bleacher Report:
It can't be stressed enough how Sam not being signed despite a productive preseason is almost unprecedented. In my two decades of covering the NFL, it isn't just rare; it's basically unheard of for a player to not make the league after playing well in the preseason. A player who produces like Sam did almost always makes it on some roster in the league, either on a practice squad or a 53-man roster... In interviews with a number of team officials, I can't find one who will actually say to me, "He can't play." They all point to the media and say he's too big a distraction.One general manager told me, "Teams want to sign Michael Sam but fear the media attention."
The NFL is a league that tolerates homophobia, the lofty words of its officials notwithstanding. San Francisco 49er Chris Culliver saw no suspension for saying gays shouldn't even think about coming out -- sent to sensitivity training, the feeble penalty we've seen in similar instances with players. Special team coordinator Mike Priefer of the Vikings said all gays should be put on an island and "nuked," and got a three-game suspension -- two if he goes to sensitivity training. Just imagine if he'd said that about Jews or any other group. Would he still be on that team?
And the New York Giants got away with hiring former giant David Tyree as director of player development, a man who campaigned against gay marriage as "tyranny," supported an "ex-gay" therapist on Twitter just a few weeks ago and has a "spiritual mother" (and co-author and business partner) who is a leader in the extreme New Apostolic Reformation, which believes homosexuality is an abomination and that Christianity needs to take over government, media, Hollywood and sports. With a guy like that directing "player development," would Michael Sam even feel comfortable if the Giants remotely expressed interest? What about the closeted player who may be on the Giants now? Is he even thinking of coming out after Sam's treatment and with Tyree as the guy to go to?
Worse still, there's no real pushback on homophobia in the NFL. GLAAD has sadly become a joke when it comes to taking on defamation, particularly within sports. The LGBT group defers to the gay ally groups working with the teams, like You Can Play, co-founded by Patrick Burke, a straight man who has a foot in the door of professional sports, working for the NHL. These groups do not see it as their role to hit hard against the teams and the leagues, working to educate from inside (and probably don't want to mess up professional relationships either).
The Human Rights Campaign, though a Washington lobbying group, clearly saw a void in GLAAD's negligence and rightly sent out a blistering press release about the Tyree hire a few weeks ago, only to be slammed by Burke, the straight guy lecturing the gays on how they should criticize homophobia.
So, there's no real pressure from the outside, certainly not like the sustained pressure we've seen on NFL commissioner Roger Goodell regarding domestic violence, which at least forced him to finally change course last week, even if it will require continued pressure. Or like the corporate and political pressure, even from U.S. senators who signed a letter, to get the Washington Redskins to change its racist name. Until we see that kind of shaming from the outside regarding homophobia in the NFL -- a non-profit, by the way, which gets all kinds of tax breaks -- until LGBT groups and politicians stand up and take it on rather than cowering, homophobia will continue to get a pass.
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